Opinion: Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence


We are very lucky to live in a country where we have freedom of speech and expression. But just because we can say whatever we want, does that necessarily mean we should?

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, nor does it mean we should abandon respect or courtesy. Civil society relies on it.

In his 2016 documentary, Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis argues that since the 1970s, the complex ‘real world’ has been dumbed down for a simpler ‘fake world’ which he argues, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

He says that in 2016, Donald Trump’s bewildering and incessant use of social media and baseless soundbites, “defeated journalism” by rendering its fact-checking abilities irrelevant.

Thanks to some social media platforms, dense, complex and nuanced topics are reduced to soundbites. Quotes taken out of context, no citation is needed or offered, often followed by the phrase, “do your own research.”

All behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

Full-time contrarian and part-time rapper, Kanye West, recently exercised his freedom of speech on one such platform and has reaped the consequences.

Commercial partnerships and documentary collaborations have been scrapped.

The kind of tropes that Kanye West spouted have been around for millennia and it is profoundly depressing that they are having a resurgence in the 21st century.

He is entitled to his opinion and has every right to publicise it; but must also accept the consequences of his actions.

From Kanye to car parks

On a micro level, you are perfectly within your rights to say that “parking in Bedford is a nightmare and it’s a ghost town”, but neither of those statements is true.

You can park for free for two hours every day in Queen Street car park, or for an hour in the Lidl car park (as long as you scan your receipt from the shop).

All town centre car parks are free for two hours every Saturday and free all day on Sundays.

In the nearly 25 years I’ve lived in Bedford I have never not found a parking space.

Just because the shops that you were used to shopping in no longer exist in the real world (Debenhams, BHS, Beales, TopShop), does not mean Bedford is a ghost town – and it is disrespectful to the people who do own and are running successful businesses in the town to say it is.

Until Woolworth’s closed, the only Next store in Bedford was tiny and on the site of the Costa coffee shop on Silver Street.

And when they moved to their bigger store in Midland Road, sections of social media still declared Bedford a ghost town.

Trotting out comments like that might seem innocuous, but they do have consequences. They become repeated on social media and that repetition equals veracity.

The more people that believe it, the more likely it is to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the same token, when we use facts and positivity to talk about our town centre – or in the wider context, diversity and differences – we can create a dialogue that is nuanced, understands the changing face of the high street and we can – to coin a phrase, ‘build back better’.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from facts. And it certainly isn’t freedom from consequences.

Update: This article was updated on 31 October 2022 at 9:14am. We corrected a sentence to reflect that Next was in Silver Street earlier than the late 90s.

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